PNG Faces Bleak, Brutal Future
New Zealand Herald
5 July 2005
By Greg Ansley
They play hardball politics in Papua New Guinea.
In the 2002 elections, most voters in the town of Mendi and the district of Tari in the
Southern Highlands stayed away as gunmen took over polling booths and named their
candidate on all available voting papers.
The Mendi police station was stormed, policemen overpowered and ballot boxes containing
about 30,000 marked ballot papers stolen. Another 50,000 were taken from other centres.
Soldiers, including senior officers, disobeyed orders confining them to barracks to illegally
help favoured candidates, prompting one local electoral manager to complain: "There is no
form of democracy here, and we have been controlled under the barrel of the gun."
From the top down, violence and corruption have made PNG one of the most dangerous
places on Earth. The capital, Port Moresby, was named the most dangerous of the 130 cities
in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s latest annual global hardship survey.
The impact of this culture, says a chilling study released yesterday, is hammering almost
every aspect of life in what has become a regional tinderbox.
A rapid rise in gun ownership and trafficking has hit the economy, education, health and
other essential services. It has made crime more deadly, made tribal warfare even more
deadly and given force to corruption that undermines the basic pillars of democracy.
The report, Gun-Running in Papua New Guinea, was written by New Zealander Philip
Alpers, an adjunct professor at Sydney University’s School of Public Health, former senior
fellow at the Harvard Injury Control Research Centre, and a former Fair Go journalist.
His report was prepared for The Small Arms Survey, an internationally supported research
project based at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva, Switzerland.
Although focusing on PNG’s Southern Highlands province, the report holds implications for
the broader Pacific region and underlines the emphasis on the collection and disposal of
weapons in the successful peace operations in Bougainville and the Solomon Islands.
"The Pacific experience demonstrates how deeply even a small number of small-arms can
damage small communities," Professor Alpers writes.
"Lawfully held civilian stockpiles of small-arms in the Pacific include 3.1 million firearms, or
one privately held gun for every 10 people. This surpasses the global ratio by more than 50
In PNG, the results are written in blood. The accelerating gun culture has meshed almost
seamlessly with tradition and local customs of tribal warfare, aided by a general contempt for
"outsiders" and their laws, including provincial and national government.
"Allegiance to the tribe, clan and sub-clan remains stronger in most cases than to the abstract
notions of citizenship, state and nation," the report says.
Every Southern Highlands tribe now has access to high-powered guns, with proliferation
spurred by fear. If one village has weapons, its neighbours also seek them for protection.
About 2450 factory-made guns are held privately, including between 500 and 1000 high-
powered weapons, mostly Australia-made SLR, American M16s and Armalite AR15s.
Professor Alpers points out that because these weapons are obtained almost exclusively for
use against humans, and they are several more times likely to be used in murder than a
similar gun in the world’s highest-risk countries of Ecuador, Jamaica, Colombia and South
Deadlier weapons are reported to be in circulation. Most are rarely - if ever - used but they
include mortars and more than 100 machineguns missing from Defence Force armouries.
Grenades and grenade-launchers have been used in tribal wars.
Professor Alpers says home-made weapons are ubiquitous in the Southern Highlands, even if
weapons commonly made from water pipes can be more dangerous to the user than the
Most of the weapons now underpinning crime, corruption and violence are pillaged from
military, police or prison stocks and distributed by gun-runners financed and facilitated by
politicians and civil servants "up to the highest levels".
"Many, and perhaps most, illicit high-powered firearms in the Southern Highlands were
deployed by political candidates, sitting MPs and their supporters to impress and intimidate
both rivals and voters," Professor Alpers writes.
During the 2002 elections, voters in the Kagua district were intimidated by a gunman with an
M16, and polling official Camillus Wambopa was threatened with a .38 revolver by a
candidate who later sprayed the polling station with bullets from a Glock semi-automatic
In the run-up to the election, supporters of another MP shot dead a policeman, kidnapped the
rival candidate he was escorting, and held him for ransom in a cage, along with two surviving
Last August, Parliament was adjourned "for the safety of Members" after Prime Minister Sir
Michael Somare accused the Opposition of using guns to forcibly detain MPs in the lead-up
to a vote of no confidence in his Government. One Cabinet minister claimed he had been
threatened with guns to vote with the Opposition.
A small number of weapons found their way across the Torres Strait after the Bougainville
Successive investigations have dismissed repeated reports of large-scale trading of arms for
PNG’s fabled "Niugini Gold" cannabis - none of which has turned up in noticeable amounts
in Australia - although there is evidence of guns-for-drugs trading within PNG.
But the scale of theft from Government stocks is alarming. A national audit has shown that
1440 police guns - 30 per cent of the total - are likely to have leaked to criminals. Similar
disturbing figures have been reported by military armories, with 1501 firearms "unaccounted
for", including 907 assault rifles and 102 machineguns. Of the 7664 M16 and SLR assault
rifles delivered to the Defence Force since independence in 1971, 2012 remain in stock.
Often stolen weapons are flown throughout PNG, sometimes in coffins supposedly carrying
bodies returning to homelands for burial, or concealed in commercial cargo.
In one infamous case, soldiers spirited six SLRs away after returning from an Independence
Day parade. The guns turned up in an air cargo shipment four months later, leading to the
arrest of a smuggling ring that included soldiers, police and a school headmaster, none of
whom was ultimately convicted.
No one knows how many people are killed and injured by this trade. Professor Alpers’ report
quotes Sister Gaudentia Meier, Mendi’s Catholic health secretary: "More than 90 per cent of
all deaths in [the Southern Highlands] are not reported. It costs money to register a death, so
Others put the level of unreported deaths as high as 98 per cent.
But the recorded murder rate in PNG has risen to six times that of Australia. Port Moresby
has a murder rate 42 times that of Sydney - even without what Professor Alpers says is
possibly an equal number of unreported homicides.
Guns have also become key weapons in violence and humiliation, with horrific reports of
gang rape at gunpoint, often with husbands and male relatives forced to watch. Guns also
feature in rape and the abuse of civil liberties by police.
And Professor Alpers says rental guns and mercenary gunmen have become unpredictable
wildcards in political and criminal violence.
One gunman interview for the report, known only as "Mark", described how he and other
sharpshooters killed opposing fighters flushed from cover by skirmishing parties from the
tribe that had hired his skills.
Guns are also taking a heavy toll of the innocent. Basic healthcare services are languishing or
vanishing as violence has scared medical workers away from hospitals and clinics.
Mendi hospital was abandoned for a year, and key programmes against Aids, malaria,
tuberculosis, measles, whooping cough and other diseases suffered heavily.
And because enemy homes, crops, property and facilities are key targets of tribal warfare,
education has been hit by the destruction of schools.
Local and national economies are being devastated. The 2002 United Nations Human
Development Report ranked PNG 133 out of 173 nations. It now has the lowest human
development index and the highest poverty index of 12 Pacific nations.
Development agencies are becoming wary. A UN Habitat team fled in 2003 because of the
threat of violence, and PNG’s risk rating for UN personnel is at a war footing similar to that
The answers are not simple.
Professor Alpers says the most effective short-term tool could be to choke the supply of
ammunition, rendering weapons useless, rather than the gun surrenders and buy-backs that
have frequently failed elsewhere.
He says the Government also needs to tighten control over its own weapons, publicly destroy
surplus stocks and clean up its own act, reforming the law and justice sector to "regain the
trust of those who have turned to guns".
FOR NON-COMMERCIAL, ACADEMIC OR PRIVATE USE ONLY
This item is provided by Gun Policy News (www.gunpolicy.org) for reference purposes only,
under the ‘fair use’ provisions of copyright legislation. Before gaining access to this page, the
reader has agreed to observe the intellectual property provisions which apply in the